Not everyone can live up to Paul “The Headhunter” Buentello’s nickname. A young fighter asks the power-punching former UFC heavyweight title challenger if he would mind him adopting “The Headhunter” nickname. “Sure,” as the wise 36-year-old Buentello says, “but it’s a hard name to live by. You’ve got to stand and bang.”
That’s how Buentello’s makes his living though, staying true to a nickname given to him by his tae kwon do instructor.
“I kept trying to kick the head or hit the head and he said, ‘Man, you’re headhunting a lot. You need to quit that stuff.’ And it just stuck,” says Buentello, who sports 17 knockouts in 27 fights. Not lost on the humor side of it, he adds, “If you hit them in the head, they go down faster.”
The Brashness of Youth
Closing in on 13 years in the sport, Buentello was never supposed to make it to the UFC. In fact, about the same time he made it to the Octagon in 2005, he was serving the final stretch of a 10-year Texas probation sentence.
“I was getting ready for [Andrei] Arlovski [for the UFC Heavyweight Championship], and I got the phone call telling me I was released from probation.”
Had The Lone Star State not been so kind, his career may have never taken off. The Amarillo native was allowed to travel across state borders to train at the worldrenowned American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, where he crafted his skills en route to a King of the Cage Heavyweight Championship and a UFC stint.
The same crazy youthful spirit that got him into fighting after watching UFC on VHS tapes in 1996 also got him into trouble— car theft and possession of marijuana. He put it all behind him at 22 years old, he swears, after raising hell for six years.
That’s when he started winning heavyweight tournaments, while doing work release from county jail, pouring concrete three weeks away from his UFC 51 debut—a KO over the late Justin Eilers—in February 2005. Trading in the dangerous tendencies of his youth for mixed martial arts turned Buentello into an honest man.
The physically draining nature of pouring concrete put him behind his training schedule for his first UFC bout. He called up friend and training partner David Velasquez for guidance. Buentello isolated himself inside Velasquez’s gym, sleeping on the floor for the three weeks leading up to the biggest opportunity of his career. The youthful bravado that once made him say, “I can probably be in the UFC in six, seven months,” stripped away with the humility of, “Well, eight years later I finally got there.”
Impressively finishing Eilers, Buentello planned to put his career to rest because he had lived his dream “and was ready to get home” and “get my life together.” His ex-wife talked him out of it, convincing him the money was too good. UFC President Dana White told him the same thing. It was definitely a far cry from his pre-UFC Toughman boxing career where he earned $1,000 for beating five guys in two nights. Still, he wanted to move on and get his life back together.
“Back then, walking around with $20 in your pocket— even though I fought for the UFC—I still came out negative, you know what I mean? Just the struggles of coming out to California from Texas,” says Buentello. “And once I came out here, I couldn’t afford to fly back and forth. For five years, I missed birthdays and Thanksgivings.”
He continued fighting in the UFC, catching Kevin Jordan with a guillotine before finding himself across the cage from UFC Heavyweight Champion Andre “The Pitbull” Arlovski— and getting knocked out in 15 seconds. After beating Gilbert Aldana at UFC 57 in his first fight after the devastating defeat, Buentello left the UFC on a high note for STRIKEFORCE and Affliction, where he posted a 5–1 record.
The Virtue of Patience
His patience on the three-year journey back to the UFC has The Headhunter as deadly as ever. He’s not looking for gold just yet, but he believes he’s got an honest shot at winning four consecutive fights.
“You’re gonna see a different fighter—quicker, more explosive, more punches, more accurate. You are going to see a new, younger fighter, in a sense,” says Buentello, ready to collect scalps once again in the UFC.